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Sundance 2022 Review: Dual – “The concepts and storytelling are wonderfully unique”

Karen Gillan appears in DUAL by Riley Stearns, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Writer/director Riley Stearns is no stranger to the offbeat.  His 2019 film The Art of Self Defence starring Jesse Eisenberg was a dark comedy that tackled gender politics and toxic masculinity with a unique voice.  He brings a similar brand of satirical absurdity to his third feature film, Dual.

Sarah (Karen Gillan) lives with her partner Peter (Beulah Koale), though he is often away for work and the couple seems disconnected.  Never does this seem more true in the fact that Sarah ends up in the hospital after vomiting copious amounts of blood and while he knows she’s laying in a hospital bed he texts that he hopes she has fun that night.  When the doctors diagnose her with an unknown terminal illness, Sarah starts to explore the possibility of creating a replica of herself to replace her when she is gone.  The process, which takes only an hour, is painless and will help prevent sadness in her family and friends.

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Sarah is to spend the rest of her days teaching her replica how to be her – what foods she likes, what sexual positions she favours, the type of clothing she wears.  But when, 10 months later, Sarah is told she has beaten the odds and is no longer dying her replicant has already forged a path of her own, including a healthier relationship with Peter and her own mother.  With the rules stating that original and copy cannot exist in the world simultaneously, Sarah is told that in one year, she must undertake a televised duel to the death to see which being will live her life.

Lead Karen Gillan plays dual roles here, though after playing two Nebulas in the Marvel universe and also dual roles in Dr. Who this is not new territory for her.  However, it’s still impressive when an actor can pull off this feat well and she certainly succeeds.  But Stearns really encourages a largely emotionless, almost robotic delivery from all his actors in this film.  It’s strange in the beginning, and something that I never really got used to.  Gillan’s scenes with Aaron Paul, who plays a combat coach, have a little more life, but everyone here employs the same monotone.

In Dual, Stearns explores the more philosophical while still commenting sharply on bureaucracy, self-worth, identity, violence, and our thoughts towards death.  He also employs an interesting aesthetic here – while obviously the technology for cloning is advanced the font of all the text we see on phones and screens is basic.  A television camera seen on screen is massive.  The internet connection still drops out for a FaceTime call.  It’s all in stark contrast to the high concept of clones being common in this realm.

While I can certainly recognize the value in the kind of satirical comedy writer/director Riley Stearns is going for in Dual, in the end it just wasn’t for me.  The concepts in Dual and its storytelling are wonderfully unique, but the odd deadpan delivery by all the actors was distracting and wore thin as time went on.  There were some laugh out loud moments, mostly between Gillan and Paul, that were particular highlights, among them a slo-mo fight sequence and a wonderful dance scene.  Those that can align themselves more clearly with Stearns’ vision or perhaps with an even darker sense of humour than I are apt to find even more amusement and enjoyment.

Warning for those sensitive to scenes with depictions of violence to animals: while the action itself is not shown on screen a dog shot in the head with an arrow is depicted (and another dog is threatened).

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